Alabama loses state icon

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 31, 2005

It was with a bit of shock, but not surprise that I learned of former U.S. Senator Howell Heflin's death on Tuesday night at the age of 83.

Heflin had been battling heart trouble as well as complications from diabetes for years.

Much like George Wallace, Heflin was an icon to the people of Alabama. The son of a Methodist preacher, Heflin was a skilled speaker and his penchant for southern analogy was an endearing trait to both his supporters and detractors. At times Heflin resembled a fighting mad bullfrog on the Senate floor as he argued over even the most passive of legislation.

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The people who have Howell Heflin stories are as numerous as grains of sand on the ocean floor.

Even I can say I have a Howell Heflin story.

A few years back, my father needed to have some tests and surgery done at the hospital in Birmingham. He, my mother and I drove up and spent the night. After watching a movie at one of the nearby cinema complexes, we headed over to the Waffle House by the hotel for a late dinner. I had the Patty-Melt Plate. I always have the Patty-Melt Plate at Waffle House, even if it's breakfast.

I know: this is the part where you tell me to get on with the story.

Anyway, we sat around, ate our meal, talked about the movie (which was "Signs" by the way - great flick), and generally observed our surroundings and the people eating around us.

I spotted a man sitting near the door with his wife at a booth, a man that resembled only one person that I had ever seen before in my life - the late Senator.

"That's Howell Heflin," I said.

Mother, father, turned.

"I believe it is," they said.

We finished our meal.

It is not in my father's nature to simply walk past someone, whether he knows them or supposes he knows them simply because they've been in the news or on television. A few years after this story occurred, we were in New Orleans and he thought the singer Rod Stewart was sitting in the hotel lobby where we were staying. The man was obviously a look-a-like. We all knew he was a look-a-like. My father had to be sure.

"Rod Stewart!" He exclaimed and went to talk. I think the look-a-like was embarrassed as we were.

At least this time he was right.

On the way out, my father patted the Senator on the shoulder. "Hey now, Senator Heflin!"

Unfortunately, the Senator had just heaped a helping of scrambled eggs into his mouth and my father had obviously jarred those loose. But after wiping his mouth, he returned my father's greeting with the graciousness of a true Southern gentleman and they shook hands. Poor health had ravaged Senator Heflin's body, but his voice was still as boisterous as ever.

We left.

Of course, my mother and I were still embarrassed.

RIP, Howell Heflin.

Kevin Pearcey is editor of The Luverne Journal. He can be reached at

335-3541 or

via email at kevin.pearcey@